The fountain of music

By Heirete Yibaleh

Some 1,500 years ago, a young man from a strong religious background, was born in the kingdom of Aksum, a major trading center and a powerful empire in the ancient world. His name was Yared. Coming from a long line of the religious elite, Yared took up religious education as early as when he was 6 years old. However, the seminal force in today’s Ethiopian music, Yared, has difficulty learning from his very young age. In fact, he continuously fared below average in his religious classes and was constantly mocked and even lashed by his teachers.

Just when he was about to give up something tragic befell Yared’s family; the passing away of his father. Following the loss of a father, Yared was given to an uncle, who was a well-known priest and theology scholar at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in the world. The opportunity to further his religious education presented itself to Yared once more. There, under the guardianship of his uncle, Yared delved deeper into his education but only to be frustrated by his serious problem to learn at the same pace as his classmates. Soon, frustrations started to get the better of Yared and he decided to bolt to his other uncle and live there.

On the way to his other uncle, Yared, who later became a Saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, was stopped by a heavy rainstorm and decided to take shelter under a tree. There, while deep in thought about his learning disability, Yared noticed an insect trying to climb a tree by carrying a load of seeds. To his sheer amazement, the insect failed in his six trials before finally making it on the seventh one.

Needless to say, that was a moment of reckoning for St. Yared; and from then on he became an excellent child prodigy and took over the role of his uncle at the age of 14.                

St. Yared was a celebrated poet, author, music composer and choreographer in his time. According to an Ethiopian legend, St. Yared’s three melodic scores were inspired by birds, three birds to be exact. He called them Ge’ez, Izil and Araray and he meticulously learned their specific melodies and singing to compose his famous church chants for the Ethiopia Orthodox Church, a tradition that is still alive after a century and half. Further more is he is also speculated to have created a form of a musical notation before anybody else in the world.

St. Yared used these scales to compose five volumes of chants and hymns for worship and celebration. And he used these scales to compose and to create an indigenous musical notation system. “The scales evolved into what is known as kiñit, the unique, pentatonic, five-note, modal system that is very much alive and thriving and still evolving in Ethiopia today,’’ said Meklit Hadero, in her 13-minute-long speech she delivered , titled as the unexpected beauty of everyday sound.

Meklit, known simply as "Meklit", is an Ethiopian singer and songwriter based in San Francisco, California. She is known for her soulful performing style, and for combining jazz, folk, and East African influences in her music. Born in Ethiopia and raised in the U.S., Meklit has served as an artist-in-residence at New York University, the De Young Museum, and the Red Poppy Art House. Currently a fellow of the Wildflowers Institute, Meklit has also completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Foundation and for theatrical productions staged by Brava: “For Women in the Arts”.

Meklit went further back to her musical ancestry, in the speech she delivered at the TedTalks Stage a few months back. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a global set of conferences run by the private nonprofit organization: Sapling Foundation, under the slogan "Ideas are Worth Spreading". The emphasis is on the educational aspect.

TED was founded in February 1984 as a one-off event; the annual conference series began in 1990. TED Talks are videos that present a great idea in 18 minutes or less. They’re filmed at flagship TED conferences, independent TED events, and other special TED programs. Their goal is to share ideas “Worth Spreading” in fields like science, technology, business, culture, art and design around the world.

In her speech, Melkit focused on three things: nature, language and silence. “Rather, the impossibility of attaining true silence,’’ as she puts it, and how they can be an inspiration for music. “The pygmies of the Congo tune their instruments to the pitches of the birds in the forest around them. Musician and nature soundscape expert Bernie Krause description shows a healthy environment has animals and insects taking up low, medium and high-frequency bands, in exactly the same way as a symphony. And countless works of music were inspired by birds and forest songs. Yes, the natural world can be our cultural teacher,’’ said Meklit as she described how nature can be an inspiration for music.

On a similar episode of Ted Talk, Bernie Krause, himself a musician, author, soundscrape expert and researcher explained that when he began recording sounds from wild habitats 45 years ago, he had no idea that insect larvae, ants and even viruses create their own sound signatures. He explainsed: "In fact, temperate and tropical rainforests each produce a vibrant animal orchestra, that instantaneous and organized expression of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals,”

Krause said. He went on to describe the three basic sources of a soundscape: Geophony, meaning non-biological sounds such as rushing water, wind in the trees and ocean waves at the beach.

Biophony is the sound made by organisms in a given habitat at a certain time and place. Anthrophony, the sound which is generated by human beings, range from snowmobiles to shrieks of laughter. Krause's research has resulted in the Natural Soundscape Collection, which currently consists of over 15,000 recorded animal sounds, both land and marine. These recordings are used by museums for their dioramas, and for atmosphere in many feature films.

Meklit also continues and moves on to talking about how language could be yet another inspiration in music and her personal experience with the language of Amharic. “As an Ethiopian-American woman, I grew up around the language of Amharic, Amhariña. It was my first language, the language of my parents, one of the main languages of Ethiopia. And there are a million reasons to fall in love with this language: its depth of poetics, its double entendres, its wax and gold, its humor, its proverbs that illuminate the wisdom and follies of life. But there's also this melodicism, a musicality built right in it. And I find this distilled most clearly in what I like to call emphatic language—language that's meant to highlight or underline or that springs from surprise,” Meklit explained.

“Take, for example, the word: ‘indey’. Now, if there are Ethiopians in the audience, they're probably chuckling to themselves, because the word means something like ‘No!’ or ‘How could he?’ or ‘No, he didn't’.  It kind of depends on the situation. But when I was a kid, this was my very favorite word, and I think it's because it has a pitch. It has a melody. You can almost see the shape as it springs from someone's mouth."Indey" -- it dips, and then it rises again. And as a musician and composer, when I hear that word, something like this is floating in my mind,’’ says Meklit while playing a recording of a music she made inspired by that word. When explaining how she does the music inspired by words and phrases such as this one, she says what she does is take the melody and the phrasing of the words and turn them into musical parts.

On the final element of silence, Meklit presents 1950s United States and the most seminal work of 20th century avant-garde composition: John Cage's 4:33 as an example. Written for any instrument or combination of instruments, this composition is played by a musician or musicians whereby they are invited to walk onto the stage with a stopwatch and open the score.” This score has not a single note written and there is not a single note played for four minutes and 33 seconds. And, at once enraging and enrapturing, Cage shows us that even when there are no strings being plucked by fingers or hands hammering piano keys, still there is music; yes there is music,” Meklit goes on to explain.

“What is this music?” she asks. According to her, it is the everyday soundscape that arises from the audience themselves: their coughs, their sighs, their rustles, their whispers, their sneezes, the room, the wood of the floors and the walls expanding and contracting, creaking and groaning with the heat and the cold, the pipes clanking and contributing. “As controversial though it was, and even controversial though it remains, Cage's point is that there is no such thing as true silence. Even in the most silent environments, we still hear and feel the sound of our own heartbeat. The world is alive with musical expression. We are already immersed,” Meklit says.

John Milton Cage Jr., born on September 5, 1912 in America, is one of a kind composer, music theorist, writer, and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electro acoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. Cage says there is no such thing as silence. “If so, what is silence? Is silence sound, Noise, Music?’’ asks Cage.

In finalizing her speech, Meklit says everyone is involved in the making of music. “We are the audiences and the composers,’’ she says indicating the fact that as long as there is nature and we are listening, there will never be such a thing as a musical desert and that we are permanently hanging out at the oasis.